story by Liza Simon
photos by Dana Edmunds
Rock wall building is not the type of employment that draws lines at job fairs, not a career where you whistle while you work—unless you know Sam Cooke’s ditty about working on the chain gang. Rock wall building is one of the hardest of hard jobs, and I’d never associated it with an air of tranquility until today as I sit in a Waipahu backyard watching a crew of seven guys calmly finish up a retaining wall. Not a murmur is heard as Moli hands a soccer ball-sized rock to Aaron, who wedges the rock’s jagged edge against another already set on the unfinished wall. Aaron leans in to make sure the new addition is level; then, on a signal invisible to me, Moli pours in dark cement to flood the puka. Every move I’m watching is calculated to lock the rocks into an instant puzzle that will stump the force of a bad storm, even the weathering of time itself.
“We like to concentrate,” Aaron says when I ask him about the quietude. Everyone’s on a lunch break now, eating helpings of curried beef stew so plentiful they’re overflowing the edges of takeout containers. “There’s plenty of time for joking when the job is done, but while we’re working, what is there to talk about? Except making the work look nice so others will want to hire us.”
The crew I’m with today works for Mataele Masonry, founded by Aaron’s uncles forty years ago. All seven masons are Tongan—news that won’t come as a surprise if you’re from O‘ahu, where burly men from the South Pacific nation are known to dominate the rock wall, or pa pohaku, building trade. But while their passports may be foreign, their skill is pure Polynesian. After all, the raw material they use is the stuff Polynesia is made of: balsatic rock provided courtesy of eons of volcanic eruptions. Whether for house foundations, kitchen implements or weaponry, lava rock was the material of convenience in island cultures of old. Sitting with the Tongan group, I mention one of their country’s most compelling stone structures, the Ha‘amanga, a colossal lava stone perfectly balanced on two pillars; it appears to gauge the solstice, a la Stonehenge. One of the workers, Monie, says that even more remarkably, the Ha‘amanga is situated on an island that is more coral than lava. Slipping into their Tongan language, they are all laughing, then stopping to translate: “Impossible, yeah? But the islanders long ago had a way of doing it.” Beef stew almost finished, Aaron introduces two workers as “real newcomers,” and there’s more laughing: The wiry-looking pair are each well into their seventies and between them share more than a century of experience with Mataele Masonry.
As these seven are with stone, so they are with each other: at ease sharing the workload of an arduous job. You might say this, too, is a Polynesian tradition that goes a long way in explaining the prevalence of stone walls in the region. It follows then that a mortar of family and fellowship is enshrined in these structures—which is perhaps one reason why stone walls leave a pleasing mark on daily life in the Islands.
Lest you doubt this, look around at our rock walls—from majestic grids in downtown Honolulu to rambling paths across pastureland, even to remote ruins in rainforests where only the most intrepid hikers are rewarded by the sight of human industry so far off the beaten path. Now, in your mind’s eye, change those walls to fences. Oops, sorry! Last winter’s tropical storm pretty much ravaged all that wood. Better fabricate some blocky concrete walls. They serve the purpose of etching form onto the local landscape, but...ughh. How at home in Hawai‘i do you feel?
When I visit with Kauasi Mataele, proprietor of Mataele Masonry, in front of the company’s monumental 400-foot-long wall leading to the Mormon Temple in La‘ie, he sums up the secret of his success as a stone builder like this: “Find the talent God gave you, because God gives everyone a talent. Then do everything you can to use it, and use it honestly!”